After his first year as an NBA Development League head coach, Rex Walters looked back on the experience with upbeat answers and enthusiasm for next season.
The former Northwestern University, University of Kansas and NBA guard also reflected on the challenges of this new, interesting chapter in his career in an exclusive interview with Hoop Scoop.
The 47-year-old Japanese-American led the Grand Rapids Drive to a 26-24 record. They posted a 24-16 record against Eastern Conference teams and closed out the season with four straight victories late last month.
Before taking over at Grand Rapids, the Detroit Pistons’ D-League affiliate, Walters had coached at the college level since 2003, the same year he retired as a pro player in the American Basketball Association. Now, after stops at Valparaiso (2003-05, assistant), Florida Atlantic (2005-06, assistant; 2006-08, head coach) and San Francisco (2008-16, head coach), he admits the chance to work in a new environment has renewed his love for coaching and rejuvenated his quest for knowledge about the game.
“I enjoyed it, I really enjoyed it,” Walters said. “It was probably something I needed to do.”
Analyzing the differences between NCAA Division I ball and the D-League, Walters provided numerous insights.
“It is different. . . . It’s basketball, so obviously there are a lot of similarities, but obviously the skill level is a lot higher,” Walters, a first-round pick of the New Jersey Nets in 1993, said in a phone interview. “It’s a longer game. There’s a lot more possessions. You’ve got to be better ATO, after timeouts, at the starts of quarters. You’ve just got more breaks in play where you really do have a chance to coach.”
With 48 minutes a game in the NBA and D-League, eight more than the standard in the U.S. college ranks, and four quarters instead of a first and second half, Walters knows the complexities of the game become more difficult with more minutes for both teams to plot strategy.
“You have to cover a lot more,” he noted. “Pick-and-roll coverage is a lot more complicated at this level. Post play, even though the post players aren’t obviously as good as the NBA, they are still better than a lot of post play in college that you’ll see. I mean, there’s 300-some-odd teams (in Division I basketball), where there’s 22 D-League teams and the posts are just better. Even though there’s not a lot of great (post) scorers, you still have to be cognizant of it — how you’re going to defend the post.”
The day-to-day job duties are different in the D-League, too, for Walters and his counterparts.
“There’s a lot more to cover,” he told Hoop Scoop. “The great thing is you have a lot more time to cover it, because you’re not recruiting. You don’t have to worry about scheduling, you don’t have to worry about academics. It’s all basketball, and that was fun. . . .
“It’s easier to coach at this level. The players are a lot better. They are a lot smarter. They kind of know who they are at this point as a man. So those are all things that make it a lot different than college. . . .”
The University of San Francisco parted ways with Walters after eight seasons in March 2016. His overall record at the helm for the Dons was 127-127 with three winning seasons: 2010-11 (19-15 and a postseason trip to the CollegeInsider.com tournament), 2011-12 (20-14, College Basketball Invitational) and 2013-14 (21-12, NIT).
Nobody confuses USF with hoop powerhouses North Carolina and Duke, and expectations are much different. Walters, however, maintains pride in what he accomplished with the Dons.
“I was never too concerned about pressure at San Francisco. I thought we did some really good things there,” said Walters, who graduated from Independence High School in San Jose, California. “They hadn’t won 20-plus games in 30 years (since a 25-6 record in 1981-82), and we did it twice. They’d been to the NCAA Tournament once, they’d been to the NIT once, when we got to the NIT once. We got to the postseason three times in eight years and qualified four years. . . . I focused on putting together the best team possible, and if you do that, good things usually happen.”
Landing his job with Grand Rapids last June, Walters reunited with Stan Van Gundy who served as a Miami Heat assistant coach under Pat Riley during his time on the club (1998-2000). The two men established a strong friendship during those years, which helped Walters make his next move. Van Gundy is the Pistons’ head coach and president of basketball operations.
But before joining Grand Rapids, Walters considered his options. He thought about working on TV for a year, or traveling and spending time observing other coaches and other programs.
“I was still going to get paid by USF so I had some freedom to do some stuff,” said Walters, whose family resides in Boca Raton, Florida.
“But then when this came up, I wanted to work, I wanted to help. I love coaching players, I love working with young people, so when it came about, I positively jumped at it because I still wanted to be a part of something.”
Walters explained how Van Gundy’s managerial style appealed to him at this stage of his career, saying that “his level of detail is as good or better than anyone I’ve ever been around.”
“On both sides of the ball, there is a very clear plan in place and how they are going to do all the details in every single situation,” Walters said. “He has put so much time and energy into that — from the player-personnel side, the scouting, how we are guarding different actions, how we’re going to attack different actions. I can’t think of too many things that he’s not prepared for in a game. And if that’s not going to make you a better coach, I don’t know what is; it’s really made me a better coach.”
Coordination between Grand Rapids and the Pistons is an ever-present task. Coaches from both teams strive to have the same plan in place at all times. After all, it’s a directive from Van Gundy.
“We were going to use the same terminology, run the same stuff,” Walters said. “The way we planned practices I wanted that to be as close as it could be. I’m not going to sit here and say it was as good. I have a long ways to go, but we wanted to mirror it as much as possible, so that if a guy got called up by the Pistons there wouldn’t be a whole lot lost in translation.
“And more importantly when we had players called down, they could get right into games and there wasn’t going to be as much confusion, any confusion.”
Although the Drive fell short of a playoff berth, Walters said that wins and losses alone don’t define the D-League team’s mission. He noted that the team’s top goal is to “help our players improve their situation as professionals.”
He cited the example of guard Ray McCallum getting called up to the Charlotte Hornets on Feb. 3 as an ecstatic feeling.
“For us that was like a playoff berth,” he said.
And when guard Jordan Crawford left the Drive and signed a contract with the New Orleans Pelicans on March 6, there was similar joy.
“We felt like we had won a playoff series,” Walters told me.
“We wanted to compete and have a chance to get in the playoffs,” Walters commented. “We were there till about two weeks until the season ended we had a chance. Losing Jordan Crawford didn’t help, but that was the best thing obviously for him.
“We’re not sitting here super proud of what happened, but we are happy in a lot of ways with what we accomplished, and obviously we want to do more. We want to put ourselves in a position to compete and play in the playoffs and win championships.”
In Grand Rapids, Michigan’s second-largest city (population: 188,000 in the 2010 census), the Drive franchise stays busy and involved with local citizens The team routinely visited schools, restaurants and hospitals as part of its community outreach.
“We just had a basic thing where we never said no,” Walters pointed out.
“Our players took to it in a positive way,” he said, adding, “(It’s) nice to be able to do more stuff outside of the basketball court, and that was different too, having more time to give back.”
In communities of all sizes, players and coaches are in the limelight. Like it or not, they are role models.
For instance, Walters aspires to inspire Japanese-Americans to pursue coaching careers and strive to reach the college game, the D-League and beyond.
“I hope that I’ve shown them that it can be done,” Walters commented. “My problem is that I don’t look that Japanese. I consider myself Japanese-American by every stretch of the imagination. I do see more of an Asian presence, a Japanese presence, as you see things on Facebook. You watch the coaches out there. You see more of it, and I think that’s a great thing.
“As a Japanese-American, I want a Japanese-American boy or girl to feel that they are bound by nothing and they can achieve great things, so if I’m helping bring that out just a little bit, that’s pretty cool for me.
“Sometimes my competitiveness will probably get in the way of that, but I still see a positive role model for our youth.”
Early in his coaching career at FAU, Walters mentored current B. League standout Jeff Parmer of the Yokohama B-Corsairs. And a former B-Corsairs star, guard Marcus Simmons, made a big impact for the Drive this season.
Simmons raised a few eyebrows for his lock-down defense.
“I thought he was the best on-the-ball defensive player in the league. He just came to us late (in mid-January),” Walters said.
“I didn’t think there was a better guy to guard the basketball, and I thought he really got better off the ball as well. His competitiveness and will to win is as good as I’ve coached. He was just a great young man.
“The day he signed with us, he was all about doing things the right way, competing at a high level and defending at a high level as well, which equates to winning, in my opinion.”
Before our conversation wrapped up, I asked Walters if being an NBA head coach is his ultimate goal.
“It’s probably changed. I didn’t think about that a lot while I was coaching college,” he told Hoop Scoop. “My mindset was to someday be at a place where you can win a national championship. I don’t know if I’ll get that opportunity, but really my whole thing is just about becoming a better coach. And if I continue to grow as a coach and get better and learn and improve in my craft, I think opportunities will present itself, and if that someday leads to an NBA head coaching (job) — there’s not a lot of jobs out there.
“To me it’s more about the process of getting better and if it leads to that, great. I would love that opportunity; and if it doesn’t, I can live with that as well.
“But it’s definitely something that’s been in the back of my mind, whereas it probably wasn’t on my mind at all three or four years ago.”